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Af-Pak 2014: Waste of the environment

Abdur Razzaq and Wazhma Fazli
Chronic air pollution, filthy water and mountains of garbage in cities are creating a pandemic of respiratory and water-borne diseases both sides of the Durand Line. Authorities say they are planting trees,…
3.11.2014  |  Kabul/Nangarhar/Peshawar
په پېښور کې زیانمن شوی چاپېریال
په پېښور کې زیانمن شوی چاپېریال

On a street once buzzing with shoppers and a bustling bazaar, filthy sewers soak the edges of an overflowing garbage dump. A drug addict is picking through the waste for needles while streetchildren fish out any plastic or tin they can sell to recyclers. A family with bags of rubbish adds their waste to the pile and the rotten smell wafts through the air and down Ashraf Road in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

According to a feasibility report submitted by the National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the total solid waste generated in the city of Peshawar is estimated to be 602 tonnes per day, with a generation rate of 0.5kg per capita. The same report says that the Tehsil Municipal Corporation – the body subcontracted to clear waste in Peshawar – collects 398 tonnes of waste on a daily basis, meaning more than 200 tonnes of toxic, industrial and public garbage is burnt, left to simmer in the streets or to infect the waters of the city's ailing potable water network. What happens to the 74,460 tonnes of annual waste not disposed of or recycled?

Garbage dumps have become permanent sites of infection permeating the city. The litter is left to rot and attracts mosquitoes, which in turn gives rise to a further spread of malaria, hepatitis, diarrhea and skin diseases. “One can see mounds of garbage while driving across the city,” says Gul Taj, a cart-shop owner on Ashraf Road in Peshawar. “People bring garbage and plunk it on roadsides. The waste materials in streets have forced the closure of the sewerage system in Peshawar,” adds Taj.

Eighty per cent of Peshawar water not drinkable

Eighty per cent of water in Peshawar is “not fit for human consumption due to both bacterial and chemical contamination,” according to Jahangir Shah, a senior scientific officer at the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) in Peshawar. Data obtained from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa health department shows that about 54 per cent of people in the province are suffering from water-borne diseases, such as typhoid and cholera, stretching the province's limited health resources.

The health department itself is largely to blame for the wasteland. While hospitals are filled with patients suffering the effects of severe pollution, toxic medical waste is one of the largest contributors to Peshawar's waste management fiasco, says one official.

“Hospital waste is extremely dangerous for the environment. In Peshawar there are three big hospitals in which incinerators are not functional and solid waste produced in hospitals is dumped in the open air,” Dr. Mohammad Bashir Khan, director general of the EPA in KP, told Afghanistan Today. “Six months back, my department conducted a survey into incinerators in both government and private hospitals. The department has issued notifications to all hospitals to install incinerators” he said.

Pollution kills in Kabul

Across the border in the Afghan capital Kabul, waste management authorities face similar challenges as their Pakistani counterparts to curve the rise of air pollution, water-borne diseases and untreated toxic waste littering the urban landscape. “In 24 hours we collect 510 tonnes of solid waste from different locations in Kabul, but due to the lack of machinery and resources we cannot keep pace with the daily solid waste production in the capital,” says Nisar Ahmad Habibi Ghori, head of Kabul Municipality's sanitation and waste collection authority. According to the Ministry of Public Health, pollution in Kabul may be hastening the death of over 3,000 people every year. Residents succumb to diarrhea and respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis, caused by Kabul's dust-particle filled streets, with children the demographic most affected.

The spread of air-borne diseases is equally, if not more severe, in provincial Afghan cities. “In the last three months we have treated hundreds of patients who were suffering from respiratory illnesses,” says Dr. Mohammad Nasir, director of environmental protection at the Nangarhar Department for Public Health.

Smell of burnt tyres in Nangarhar

Officials in Nangarhar say more social responsibility is needed if the rising mountains of waste that afflict Jalalabad are to be handled, a thought echoed by Nasrin Saberi of Kabul's 'greenery department'. “Hundreds” of personnel work in waste collection in Nangarhar's provincial capital Jalalabad, yet authorities say only if people dispose of their litter in the right way can the plethora of overflowing dumps be brought under control.

The head of the environmental protection agency in Nangarhar, Fazil Rabi Halim, says new recycle and garbage disposal sites are installed in the city every year and thousands of new trees have been planted to tackle air pollution. “But because of a shortage of water most of these newly-planted trees go dry in the first few weeks,” says Fazil. The environment expert says the air quality in Jalalabad is particularly bad because of brick kilns powered by burned rubber tyres and the city's 15,000 scooters.

'More trees' is a popular slogan across the border too, although an activist in Peshawar points out that mass deforestation along the border and greenery removal in cities runs contrary to effective policies to combat pollution. “In Pakistan authorities don’t care about forests,” says Adil Zareef, an environmental activist with the Sarhad Conservation Centre. “In our country, the government cuts down trees for development projects and that’s why green areas and trees on roadsides in Peshawar have been felled for construction purposes,” he said.

Counterfeit fuel and black water

Green areas in urban settlements both side of the border are designed to combat fumes from clogged traffic, kilns and industrial factories. The recent increase in motorised vehicles has no doubt worsened the air in Afghan cities, especially since many cars and motorbikes run on counterfeit fuel and heavily-polluting exhaust systems. Authorities say nearly one in five vehicles does not meet legislated regulation standards.

The National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) has set up “fuel control stations in Kabul to halt the import of substandard fuel,” according to the organisation's head of policy Kazim Homayun. Ultimately, authorities are struggling to find a waste management policy that can keep up with Afghanistan's rapid urban growth. Ghori, head of Kabul's sanitation authority, points out that the population of the Afghan capital has mushroomed from one to six million in just over a decade.

Rusty sewers in Peshawar

Residents down the Khyber Pass in Peshawar say KP's capital has been equally neglected by urban planners. Awal Khan, a 60-year old resident in Shaheen Muslim quarter of Peshawar, says the water supply system in his area was built 30 years ago. “The rusted pipelines suck contaminated water from drains and such impure water services our ares,” says Khan. The elder citizen, who says his grandsons are often in hospital with water-born illnesses, says he has made the relevant authorities aware of the rusty pipes but that to date no action has been taken.

The EPA estimates that Pakistan spends nearly 3.5 billion US dollars annually to tackle environmental pollution, yet 40 per cent of Pakistani children under-5 die after contracting water-borne diseases, according to figures released by the EPA. Authorities in Peshawar say they have launched several initiatives to tackle the rising tide of waste and health epidemics. “In the near future, EPA, with the collaboration of private firms, will install a highly efficient incinerator outside the provincial capital. Those hospitals which do not have incinerators will incinerate hospital waste there”, says Mohammad Bashir Khan, the body's provincial director in KP. Aside from handling much of the city's surplus waste, the giant furnace will also incinerate toxic waste from the city's three hospitals.

Ghani: "Kabul not appropriate to live in"

A spokesman for the Nangarhar governor's office, Ahmad Zia Abdulzoi, says “the governor is well aware of this problem and is working with in-charge officials to create a comprehensive mechanism to bring an end to air pollution as well as to address the concerns that people have in this regard.”

Long-time asthma sufferer Behashta will be hoping the air quality improves soon. “In the summers when it is dry, my asthma increases and troubles me more,” says the 19-year old Kabul resident, whose two younger brothers both died of respiratory diseases. A popular contemporary Afghan poem describes Kabul “as beautiful as a garland of roses,” although the president-elect Ashraf Ghani may not have read that particular verse. At a recent talk at Kabul's municipality, President Ghani described the Afghan capital as “not an appropriate place to live in.”